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David Brooks' Moral Formation Without Morals
There is no substitute for the Protestant religious and moral core of America
David Brooks had a 6,500 word article in the September issue of The Atlantic titled “How America Got Mean.” It’s a call to re-establish institutions for the moral formation of our citizens. He writes:
Why have Americans become so mean? I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week—something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive. At the far extreme of meanness, hate crimes rose in 2020 to their highest level in 12 years. Murder rates have been surging, at least until recently. Same with gun sales. Social trust is plummeting. In 2000, two-thirds of American households gave to charity; in 2018, fewer than half did. The words that define our age reek of menace: conspiracy, polarization, mass shootings, trauma, safe spaces. We’re enmeshed in some sort of emotional, relational, and spiritual crisis, and it undergirds our political dysfunction and the general crisis of our democracy. What is going on?
The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein. The story I’m going to tell is about morals. In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.
Before I discuss this article, I want to stress a couple of things. The first is that it should be read in the context of Brooks’ body of work, including his own faith journey. The second is to recognize that he’s making an argument in the public square. Everyone doing that puts forth arguments that they think are going to be convincing to their readers, which typically involves appeals to the value system of the audience. People might personally have a set of reasons why they support something, but only promote the subset that they think will convince an audience. I do this myself at times. So we shouldn’t assume that Brooks doesn’t have other views on moral formation that he didn’t put into the piece.
With those things in mind, I want to highlight a few things that jumped out at me.
Moral Formation Without Christianity
The first is that for Brooks, America’s historic processes of moral formation were an essentially generic enterprise. They were not rooted in Protestant Christianity or any other specific claim to truth, but rather in some belief in an “objective moral order” that could just as much be a product of pantheism as a creator God.
For a large part of its history, America was awash in morally formative institutions…The moral-education programs that stippled the cultural landscape during this long stretch of history came from all points on the political and religious spectrums.
Beyond the classroom lay a host of other groups: the YMCA; the Sunday-school movement; the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; the settlement-house movement, which brought rich and poor together to serve the marginalized…And of course, by the late 19th century, many Americans were members of churches or other religious communities. Mere religious faith doesn’t always make people morally good, but living in a community, orienting your heart toward some transcendent love, basing your value system on concern for the underserved—those things tend to.
The other guiding premise was that concepts like justice and right and wrong are not matters of personal taste: An objective moral order exists, and human beings are creatures who habitually sin against that order. This recognition was central, for example, to the way the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and early 1960s thought about character formation. “Instead of assured progress in wisdom and decency man faces the ever present possibility of swift relapse not merely to animalism but into such calculated cruelty as no other animal can practice,” Martin Luther King Jr. believed. Elsewhere, he wrote, “The force of sinfulness is so stubborn a characteristic of human nature that it can only be restrained when the social unit is armed with both moral and physical might.”
In reality, America was a Protestant dominated nation from its political founding, when the country was fully 98% Protestant, up through the 1950s swan song of the so-called “Protestant Establishment.” While other religious and ethnic groups had their own institutions, it was undoubtedly the specifically Anglo-Protestant culture of America that shaped the institutions whose loss Brooks laments. This includes the YMCA, the Sunday School movement, the Scouts, and the settlement house movement, all of which were basically Protestant movements.
Yet the word “Christian” only appears in the article once, and the word “evangelical” twice - all in negative contexts. There’s also one mention of “Judeo-Christianity” that is about showing that it just one of many “venerated moral traditions.” The word “Protestant” never appears.
Brooks’ is an approach rooted in Iris Murdoch’s idea of the “sovereignty of good,” not the sovereignty of God. If anything, Brooks comes across as hostile to contemporary Christianity.
In line with this, Brooks does not give Martin Luther King the title “Reverend,” and treats King’s rhetoric as emanating from a generic moral order of the universe rather than the specifically Protestant theology that he evoked (such as in his Letter from Birmingham Jail).
Brooks also might have noted that another of his avatars of moral formation, Mr. Rogers, was an ordained Presbyterian minister and seminary graduate.
Even in dark times, sparks of renewal appear. In 2018, a documentary about Mister Rogers called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was released. The film showed Fred Rogers in all his simple goodness—his small acts of generosity; his displays of vulnerability; his respect, even reverence, for each child he encountered. People cried openly while watching it in theaters. In an age of conflict and threat, the sight of radical goodness was so moving.
In short, Brooks account of America’s tradition of moral formation is not fully accurate. That tradition was specifically Protestant Christian, though many non-Anglo and non-Protestant groups assimilated into that culture and recast many of their institutions into its image.
Other cultures and religions can certainly have their own idea of and institutions for moral formation. But the end product would be a culture very unlike the American one Brooks admires. Just look around the world and see.
Moral Formation Without Morals
Although Brooks explicitly says he wants “moral formation,” what he appears to actually want is some form of public civility and self-improvement program. Here are some selections about what Brooks seems to mean when he talks about morals:
The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein.
Moral formation, as I will use that stuffy-sounding term here, comprises three things. First, helping people learn to restrain their selfishness. How do we keep our evolutionarily conferred egotism under control? Second, teaching basic social and ethical skills. How do you welcome a neighbor into your community? How do you disagree with someone constructively? And third, helping people find a purpose in life. Morally formative institutions hold up a set of ideals. They provide practical pathways toward a meaningful existence: Here’s how you can dedicate your life to serving the poor, or protecting the nation, or loving your neighbor.
A culture invested in shaping character helped make people resilient by giving them ideals to cling to when times got hard. In some ways, the old approach to moral formation was, at least theoretically, egalitarian: If your status in the community was based on character and reputation, then a farmer could earn dignity as readily as a banker. This ethos came down hard on self-centeredness and narcissistic display. It offered practical guidance on how to be a good neighbor, a good friend.
Over the course of the 20th century, words relating to morality appeared less and less frequently in the nation’s books: According to a 2012 paper, usage of a cluster of words related to being virtuous also declined significantly. Among them were bravery (which dropped by 65 percent), gratitude (58 percent), and humbleness (55 percent).
Ted Lasso is about an earnest, cheerful, and transparently kind man who enters a world that has grown cynical, amoral, and manipulative, and, episode after episode, even through his own troubles, he offers the people around him opportunities to grow more gracious, to confront their vulnerabilities and fears, and to treat one another more gently and wisely.
Murdoch’s character-building formula roots us in the simple act of paying attention: Do I attend to you well? It also emphasizes that character is formed and displayed as we treat others considerately. This requires not just a good heart, but good social skills: how to listen well. How to disagree with respect. How to ask for and offer forgiveness. How to patiently cultivate a friendship. How to sit with someone who is grieving or depressed. How to be a good conversationalist.
Moral renewal won’t come until we have leaders who are explicit, loud, and credible about both sets of goals. Here’s how we’re growing financially, but also Here’s how we’re learning to treat one another with consideration and respect; here’s how we’re going to forgo some financial returns in order to better serve our higher mission.
Moral realists are fighting to defend and modernize these rules and standards—these sinews of civilization. Moral realism is built on certain core principles. Character is destiny. We can either elect people who try to embody the highest standards of honesty, kindness, and integrity, or elect people who shred those standards.
There are some morals in there, but a lot of this is not morality as would have traditionally been understood. In fact, Brooks rejects the idea of Ten Commandments style morality:
We would never want to go back to the training methods that prevailed for so long, rooted in so many thou shall nots and so much shaming, and riddled with so much racism and sexism.
It’s interesting to contrast Brooks with the sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, who shared a wide range of Brooks’ concerns ranging from religious discrimination to demagogic leaders to identity politics. But Baltzell was very concerned with genuine personal morality. He wrote:
In our post-1960s obsession with social justice among class, ethnic, and racial (as well as gender) categories, we have witnessed a steady decline in personal morality. Today, it is far worse to be accused of being anti-Semitic, anti-black, sexist, or elitist than to be known as a consummate liar or adulterer.
Note that Baltzell is still very much concerned with the “the shalt nots” such as adultery and lying, which form the root of his view of personal character. Even purely cultural elements of his Protestant establishment are often rooted in negative injunctions. He says that what it means to be an establishment is being led by people for whom “certain things are not done.”
What Brooks seems to want is some kind of a code of manners like “be kind, be nice,” as well as some general life orientation towards higher ends. But he is not asking for the Christian moral code, or indeed any traditional moral code, which he appears to believe is somewhat retrograde.
The Neoconservative Style
Brooks’ article is an example of what I call the neoconservative style. It is a largely secularist, often social science driven form of argumentation in which enlightened self-interest substitutes for traditional metaphysical and moral argumentation.
A good example is Amy Wax’s championing of “bourgeois values”:
That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.
These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.
As I’ve noted before, this was a courageous column to write. But note that it is not about morality, but whether or not a particular culture can be a “major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence.” Like Brooks, Wax also talks about the sexism, etc of the old model, and has similar critiques of identity politics.
In other words, while the old moral and social systems were bad by today’s newer, more enlightened, liberated cultural standards, we should nevertheless continue to follow a modified version of some of those old practices because they lead to better personal and societal outcomes.
One need not be personally secularist to make these kinds of arguments. Brad Wilcox’s idea of the “success sequence” functions similarly. Although he is a devout Catholic, his engagement in the public square is from his professional perspective as a sociology.
So we shouldn’t assume that David Brooks doesn’t have some stronger personal moral views than he expresses in his Atlantic piece. At the same time, the arguments of people like Brooks and Wax, or that of the success sequence, are pretty weak sauce. They don’t motivate anyone other than intelligent, low time preference people of the type that don’t need to be convinced.
As Sigmund Freud wrote in The Future of an Illusion:
The doctrines of religion are not a subject one can quibble about like any other. Our civilization is built up on them, and the maintenance of society is based on the majority of men believing in the truth of those doctrines. If men are taught that there is no almighty and all-just God, no divine world order and no future life, they will feel exempt from all obligation to obey the precepts of civilization. Everyone will without inhibition or fear, follow his asocial, egoistic instincts and seek to exercise his power; Chaos, which we have banished through many thousands of years of the work of civilization, will come again
Civilization has little to fear from educated people and brainworkers. In them the replacement of religious motives for civilized behavior by other, secular motives would proceed unobtrusively; moreover, such people are to a large extent themselves vehicles of civilization. But it is another matter with the great mass of uneducated and oppressed, who have every reason for being enemies of civilization. So long as they do not discover that people no longer believe in God, all is well. But they will discover it, infallibly, even if this piece of writing of mine is not published.
At the end of the day, there’s simply no substitute for genuine faith and a real moral code. There’s no way to replace the void left with the evicting of Protestant Christianity from America with some kind of generic moral formation substitute. Either Christianity is true, or morality is just what you can get away with.